Is it even possible for a mayor to make a political comeback in a year when the public schools remain broke and the number of murders and shootings in Chicago reach levels not seen since the 1990s?
If it is, Rahm Emanuel did that in 2016.
Left for dead politically after his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, Emanuel waged a frenzied, yearlong campaign to rebuild shattered public trust and win back the support he had hemorrhaged.
He appears to have succeeded, to the point that the conversation has shifted to whether Emanuel will decide to seek a third term instead of whether he will resign.
The mayor began the year by doling out $5.5 million in reparations to 57 victims of the Jon Burge police torture era.
With rank-and-file Chicago Police officers in a defensive crouch, laboring under the cloud of a federal civil rights investigation, he chose a new police superintendent from within the ranks, who hadn’t even applied for the job, in hopes of building rock-bottom morale.
Eddie Johnson replaced the fired Garry McCarthy after Emanuel rejected all three finalists that the Police Board had recommended after a nationwide search. The mayor then convinced the City Council to change the rules and dispense with the charade of a second search.
Emanuel also abolished the Independent Police Review Authority and took the first steps toward building a new and better-funded system of police accountability.
With the murder rate soaring and the feds certain to demand more police supervision, Emanuel promised to fill hundreds of vacancies and still hire 970 additional police officers over and above attrition.
The two-year police hiring surge will only return a depleted police force to the levels Emanuel inherited. Nevertheless, it marked a stunning about-face for a mayor who has relied on police overtime — to the tune of $116 million a year — in a failed attempt to get a handle on gang violence.
The unrelenting bloodbath on Chicago streets was such a dominant theme in 2016 that Emanuel delivered a major policy address on crime and made a three-year, $36 million mentoring program a cornerstone of his citywide campaign against violence.
It’s aimed at providing a mentor to every one of the 7,200 eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade boys in Chicago’s 20 most violent neighborhoods.
Along the way, the mayor used a record tax-increment financing surplus to avert another teachers strike and identified dedicated funding sources for all four city employee pension funds after his previous pension fix was blocked by the Illinois Supreme Court. He also cut deals with major airlines to build a new runway at O’Hare Airport and overhaul the international terminal.
Chicago aldermen spent much of the year flashing seldom-seen signs of independence emboldened by the Laquan McDonald controversy that had weakened Emanuel politically.
Instead of reacting defensively, Emanuel launched a charm offensive.
He held frequent one-on-on meetings with aldermen, invited the 16 committee chairmen to dinner and asked his staff to smother the City Council with closed-door briefings on important issues.
The new and more collaborative approach would help Emanuel win approval of controversial ordinances regulating the ride-hailing and home-sharing industries; a 29.5 percent tax on water and sewer bills for pensions; and an $8.2 billion budget that sailed through unanimously — because the toughest decisions had already been made.
When a New York Times poll showed him with dismal support among black voters, Emanuel blamed “40 years” of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West Sides and set out to reverse that neglect.
Ground Zero was impoverished Englewood, home of a new Whole Foods store that opened in September.
The project was made possible by an $11 million city subsidy for site preparation and public improvements all around the new store. Englewood is also in line for a new high school in a plan that would consolidate four to six under-enrolled South Side high schools.
Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp was hired to serve as a $185,004-a-year deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer.
The mayor also proposed: a series of incentive programs aimed at boosting minority contracting and employment; a $100 million Catalyst Fund to bridge the funding gap outside the downtown area; and a Robin Hood plan to let downtown developers build bigger and taller projects so long as they share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods.
The blistering 190-page report from the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability was a turning point in 2016.
It characterized IPRA as so “badly broken” it needed to be abolished and condemned a collective bargaining agreement with the police union that, it claimed, turns a “code of silence into official policy.”
Emanuel had already embraced the task force recommendation about releasing video and audio tied to police-involved shootings and serious injuries suffered in police custody “no more than 60 calendar days after” the incident occurs.
But he initially had balked at getting rid of IPRA before reversing field, just as he did on police manpower.
After months of behind-the-scenes bargaining with stakeholders and countless public hearings, the City Council approved the first two parts of Emanuel’s police accountability overhaul: a Civilian Office of Police Accountability to replace IPRA and a deputy inspector general for public safety to audit police practices, recommend changes to the police contract and bird-dog the accountability system.
In 2017, Emanuel must find a way to appease restive community leaders furious about his decision to postpone indefinitely the appointment of a civilian oversight board that will choose a permanent COPA chief to replace IPRA chief Sharon Fairley, who will hold down the fort in the interim.
The painstaking negotiations on police accountability turned out to be the new normal with the restive City Council.
Even Emanuel’s plan to boost Chicago’s smoking age from 18 to 21 was the product of a similar give-and-take.
Despite his apparent political resurrection, Emanuel still had his setbacks in 2016.
He acknowledged using a private email account to conduct official city business and released nearly 3,000 of those emails, ending a marathon legal battle that ran contrary to his promise to run a “transparent” administration.
Unrelenting opposition from Friends of the Parks killed the mayor’s plan to give movie mogul George Lucas 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field to build an interactive museum.
Chicago lost a $743 million private investment that would have been the largest philanthropic gift in the city’s history even after Emanuel floated a hail-Mary alternative plan to tear down the above-ground portion of McCormick Place East to make way for the Lucas Museum.
The marathon budget stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic legislative leaders continued to stand in the way of state pension help for the city and Chicago Public Schools.
Three Republican crossover votes helped Emanuel overturn Rauner’s veto of a bill giving Chicago 15 more years to ramp up to a 90 percent funding level for police and fire pensions.
But Rauner’s more recent veto of a bill giving CPS the $215 million in state pension already built into the school budget has not been overturned, creating a potential crisis that must be dealt with in 2017.
And to think that Emanuel and Rauner were once close friends, school reform allies, vacation buddies and business associates who made millions together.
Donald Trump’s stunning victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton cost the mayor his once formidable clout in Washington, D.C., and threatens to cost Chicago hundreds of millions of dollars, even if Trump drops his threat to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities.
It was a fitting end to a humiliating political season for Chicago’s mayor.
During the presidential primaries, Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders pummeled Emanuel as a Wall Street puppet who closed a record 50 public schools and kept the McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year.
An email released by WikiLeaks disclosed that an ally of Emanuel’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, had urged her campaign chairman, John Podesta, to have the Democratic presidential candidate “separate big time” from Emanuel.
Emanuel even took it on the chin at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where Clinton claimed her historic nomination.
A 10-minute video that highlighted Obama’s achievements essentially threw the mayor under the bus by portraying Emanuel as a calculating naysayer whose advice was ignored during the fight for Obamacare.
Despite all of the ups and downs of a mostly up year for Emanuel, the unrelenting violence threatens to undermine all of the mayor’s accomplishments.
Chicago will end the year with well over 755 murders and roughly 3,500 shootings.
One of those victims was the 15-year-old grandson of U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.
That’s apparently why, when asked to assess his own performance in 2016, Emanuel’s dominant theme was turning the corner on the violence that Trump had used to bludgeon Chicago on the campaign trail.
“There’s a lot that got done. We did some very important things for the city. [But] there is no doubt in 2017. I would like to see a different effort. Not a different effort. A different result as it relates to communities [with] havoc being wreaked on them by gun violence,” the mayor said.
Emanuel noted that he routinely faces the grim task of calling and visiting families of young people gunned down on the streets of Chicago.
“I don’t think any family — or specifically a mother or parent or grandparent — should go through what I have seen individual parents . . . go through. I would like to see for the city a different sense of community, specifically on the South and West Sides where this senseless violence occurs,” he said.
Noting that Chicago is leading big cities in its “drop in poverty,” the mayor said: “I’d like to see a similar drop in violence.”